Policy

Airbnb enabled a movement to help Ukraine. Free housing is only part of it.

How Airbnb built its platform to help refugees.

Airbnb app on an iPhone

Airbnb's philanthropic arm aims to provide 100,000 Ukrainians with free housing.

Thiago Prudencio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Image

When Airbnb announced its goal to provide 100,000 people fleeing Ukraine with free temporary housing, it received an outpouring of support.

Barack Obama promoted the effort on Twitter, and those who could not offer their help decided to support the cause with donations instead.

Now, about 30,000 hosts have signed up on Airbnb.org, the company’s philanthropic site, to provide free housing, according to an Airbnb spokesperson. That figure is already more than the 20,000 Afghan refugees that Airbnb hosts extended free or discounted housing to last summer. Airbnb.org’s goal of providing housing to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees would equal the total number of people Airbnb.org helped through crises between 2017 and 2021 combined.

The company’s nonprofit arm has been slowly building the infrastructure to support more people escaping natural disasters, war and other crises over the past decade. Airbnb’s work started in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck and a host wanted to offer free temporary housing. Shortly thereafter, Airbnb launched a tool that allowed hosts to offer their homes to people displaced by natural disasters. After that, Airbnb began extending free or discounted housing to people fleeing conflicts like the Syrian refugee crisis and disasters including hurricanes and earthquakes. By 2020, Airbnb.org broke off into the company’s own philanthropic arm focused on these efforts.

After almost every crisis, Airbnb.org began tweaking its process for free housing assistance to make sure the offering would be, well, free, and to make certain that hosts felt comfortable enough to open up their home.

Paying for housing

In 2012, Airbnb first decided to offer people free housing. Hurricane Sandy had just struck, and the company couldn’t waive its fees for reservations because its website hadn’t been programmed to allow people to rent rooms for free. Ian Logan, then an Airbnb payments engineer, adjusted the website to allow for people to book rooms for free. After rewiring the site, hosts listed more than 1,000 spaces for free.

Today, people looking to offer free housing sign up through Airbnb.org. From there, hosts are connected with Airbnb.com, where they can create and publish a listing.

“Airbnb.org and Airbnb, Inc, work very closely together,” Catherine Powell, Airbnb’s global head of Housing, told Protocol. “Over time, I think what we've seen is how closely our own community of hosts support each other.”

Airbnb.org is funded by Airbnb, Inc. and donors, and those funds are used to help hosts pay for free or discounted housing. Hosts can also opt to list their home at a discount or for free once they sign up themselves. Last weekend, Airbnb.org received over $1.2 million in donations from individual donors across dozens of different countries, a spokesperson told Protocol.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, people have also used Airbnb.com as a way to support Ukrainians. Thousands of nights in Ukraine were booked in recent days, but people have no intention of staying there. Some have raised concerns that the movement creates a breeding ground for scams, and some listings in the country have been removed in recent days, but Airbnb did not return Protocol’s request to say why they were taken down.

Connecting people with hosts

Powell said offering free housing is only one part of the process to offer assistance to people fleeing natural disasters or other crises. Next, Airbnb.org needed to figure out a way to better connect with people in need of housing and ensure refugees could stay where other refugees were staying.

In 2015, the organization started to partner with organizations like FEMA and Mercy Corps to offer housing for relief workers and other people. In 2019, Airbnb.org began working with the International Organization for Migration to connect Syrian and Afghan refugees in Romania with housing — a partnership the organization is continuing for Ukraine relief efforts.

Airbnb also increased protections for hosts who extended their homes to refugees. The company already had some coverage in place for its hosts, but in November, Airbnb launched AirCover, which provides hosts with $1 million in protection in case a host is injured and another $1 million to cover damage to hosts’ space and belongings. That protection extends to hosts offering free housing.

“One of the considerations that people have when hosting is, ‘I am inviting strangers into my home, and what happens if they damage some of my possessions?’ Powell said. “It was really important for us to make sure that hosts were aware of this because it is a consideration if you're going to bring strangers into your home.”

Now, Airbnb.org works to verify and onboard hosts, while IOM and other agencies connect with refugees on the ground and book hosts on their behalf.

“What we saw, for example with Afghanistan, is that you will have refugees in a certain group size as a family, and they need a certain number of rooms … They want to stay with their community,” Powell said. “We see that a lot. And so the agency will be able to find suitable hosts to book.”

Once refugees have settled into a home through Airbnb, those organizations can also help them connect with other resources such as schools or work in the country where they moved.

“There are so many pieces that go into settling into a new life, and they don't know how long this new life is going to last,” she added. “We're just one piece of it.”

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